Master Gardener program has seen nothing but growth around The Villages for over 20 years

Howie Johnson, of the Village of Bridgeport at Miona Shores and a member of the UF / IFAS Sumter County Master Gardeners, trims rose bushes growing at the UF / IFAS Sumter County Extension Office demonstration garden at the Sumter County Fairgrounds in Webster.

Ed Bull still remembers the crowd from the first time the Sumter County master gardeners hosted a speaker at the Oxford Community Center.

About 300 people showed up for the speech in a room that could hold 60.

That moment inspired a successful push for the University of Florida’s Sumter extension office and its master gardener volunteers to have a presence in The Villages.

“I think it’s evolved into a bigger and better way to educate people on how to garden and if they want to do anything with native plants,” said Bull, of the Village of Virginia Trace.

More than 20 years later, the Sumter extension’s base of environmental volunteers has grown with expansion into The Villages. The program’s earliest exposure in the community was a monthly Ask the Master Gardener Plant Clinic — now twice weekly — and a “twice on Tuesday” speaker series, now “thrice on Tuesday.”

With more growth of The Villages coming, extension staff plans to recruit and train 25 master gardeners to assist with existing and upcoming programs, said Jim Davis, Sumter’s residential horticulture agent and master gardener coordinator.

Applications are open now. Training begins in September.

Planting the Seeds

The evolution of Sumter’s master gardener program, which began in 1995, took shape around 2006 with the arrival of extension agents Brooke Moffis — now a Lake County agent — and Davis.

Moffis, who worked for six years in Sumter, thinks there is a reason behind the high demand for the master gardeners’ expertise: People who move to The Villages from out of state want to learn about what can and can’t grow in Central Florida, she said.

“You have so many people from a different climate, and Florida is so different from every state in the U.S.,” she said.

On her first day of work in Sumter County, the master gardener program had about 35 members, Moffis said.

Now, there are about 80 members, Davis said.

In the extension office’s infancy, he said, its only projects were a youth garden in Bushnell and a horticulture show at the Sumter County Fair.

“There was no presence in The Villages,” Davis said.

But that changed as Sumter’s arsenal of master gardeners nearly doubled, including the arrivals of numerous dedicated volunteers from The Villages.

One of them was Ed Rhinehart, who served after his 2008 move to The Villages until his death in 2015.

Both Moffis and Davis credit Rhinehart with the expansion of the master gardener speaker series to recreation centers in The Villages.

At that time, extension staff billed the series as “Twice on Tuesdays” because they took place every fourth Tuesday of the month at two different locations, the Savannah Center and SeaBreeze Recreation Center, Davis said.

Staff expanded the speaker series to a third location, Eisenhower Recreation Center, shortly after it opened in November 2013, he said.

Master gardener growth had other impacts on the community.

The extension expanded hours for its Ask the Master Gardener plant clinics, where volunteers share expertise from University of Florida research to answer residents’ gardening and landscaping questions, Davis said.

In its early days, staff held it just once a month at the Sumter County Villages Annex on County Road 466, he said.

“Back in the day, it was just me directing the room with no computers,” Davis said.

Now it is held twice a week in The Villages — Mondays at the Florida Department of Health building on County Road 466 near Lake Sumter Landing and Fridays at The Villages Sumter County Service Center on Powell Road near Brownwood.

In 2008, master gardeners began holding a plant sale and exhibition in Wildwood as a fundraiser, Bull said. The first sale raised just $1,000.

But they held two plant sales last year, which collectively raised more than $17,000, he said.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” Bull said about the growth.

Boosting Environmental Volunteerism

More master gardeners meant Sumter’s extension office could expand its environmental education efforts.

As Davis prepares to train new master gardeners later this year, what he hopes to see in the future is to reach beyond its existing services.

He envisions a greater emphasis on beautification, with future projects including small gardens at the Sumter County Villages Annex and a pollinator garden at the House of Hope in Wildwood.

Davis also wants to see greater involvement with school programs such as the FFA.

“We want our master gardeners to help all the community and not just focus on a specific location,” he said.

Anyone interested in becoming a master gardener in Sumter County must be a county resident with basic computer skills and an email account to log into the university’s Volunteer Management System, Davis said. Applicants also must agree to a background check.

Residents chosen for the class must pay a $120 fee. Classes are scheduled to run from September to December.

Michael Salerno is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 9178, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.